Scholars Grow More Comfortable with Online Research

Apr 12, 2010

A recent study found that American faculty members are becoming increasingly reliant on digital forms of scholarly materials. However, many are still influenced by conservative attitudes governing promotion and tenure when it comes to sharing and publishing their own research.

Ithaka SR

Ithaka S+R, an academic technology and research nonprofit whose projects include JSTOR and Portico, just published the fourth report in their ongoing series of studies on faculty attitudes and behaviors regarding information technology. Conducted every three years since 2000, the surveys explore topics such as the library as an 'information gateway,' the preservation of scholarly materials and faculty engagement with institutional repositories and open access. The latest report also examines how faculty interact with scholarly societies.

Ithaka conducted the current survey in the fall of 2009. They received responses from 3,025 professors at American colleges and universities that grant bachelor's degrees or higher. Self-reported disciplines covered the full spectrum, with 38.1% in the social sciences, 26.1% in the physical sciences, 21.6% in the humanities, 6.3% in area studies and 7.8% listed as 'other.' Respondents also hailed from institutions of all different sizes, with the largest group coming from 'medium' colleges or universities.

Online Search

Digitizing Research

Faculty Survey 2009 shows that academia is joining the rest of the world in the transition from print to digital media. More and more, faculty report turning to a 'specific electronic resource' to begin their research, rather than their physical library or even library catalog. The survey also tracked how scholars discover materials throughout the research process, finding that electronic sources are also dominant here. Google or Google Scholar is now the third most popular way for faculty to find information, after following citations from other articles (a process that's facilitated through hyper linking) and searching electronic databases that allow viewers to read the full text of articles online.

From Ithaka SR Faculty Survey 2009

From the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2009, page 22.

Perhaps due to ease of access, faculty have begun to demonstrate a preference for digitized scholarly works. E-journals have come to dominate the world of academic publications, although e-books and other digital materials have been slow to catch on. As the graph above indicates, professors have taken varying levels of interest in materials such as electronic reference works, data sets and primary source collections. The preservation of electronic journals is, however, an almost universally high priority.

The Ithaka researchers found that professors are becoming more and more accustomed to using the digital versions of scholarly journals. In 2003, only about 50% of faculty agreed that it would be acceptable for libraries to discontinue their subscriptions to print journals if they continued to make them available electronically. In 2009, over 70% agreed with that statement. However, the strength of faculty support for this transition varied by discipline. Those in the sciences were most enthusiastic about the change, followed by those in the social sciences, with humanities faculty exhibiting the most reservations.

From Ithaka SR Faculty Survey 2009

From the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2009, page 16.

Interestingly, while faculty are generally comfortable with only subscribing to the electronic versions of journals, they're much more skeptical about journals ceasing to publish in print altogether. When asked how they felt about journals publishing only in electronic formats, even faculty in the digital-friendly sciences had an under 50% acceptance rate. The Ithaka researchers cite a study by Diane Harley et al indicating that faculty members see print publication as protecting a journal's prestige by, among other things, limiting acceptance rates of articles. The report also suggests that scholars may be concerned about the reliability of e-journal preservation.

Fears about preservation may also influence faculty's similarly lukewarm feelings about digitizing archives. The report's authors note that a broad range of providers have digitized the backfiles of thousands of journal titles at unpredictable levels of quality. Provisions for digital preservation and access to journal archives after subscriptions have been cancelled also vary widely. As a result, faculty are hesitant to give up access to print archives of scholarly journals, especially since the cost of retaining print is hidden to them since it goes into libraries' operating budgets. Nevertheless, a trend is emerging that suggests that this too will change. Although the percentage of faculty who 'strongly agreed' with replacing hard-copy collections with digital archives lingered at around 20% between 2003 and 2006, the number climbed to just under 40% in 2009. Once again, humanities faculty proved to be far more resistant to digitization than those in the sciences and social sciences.

In spite of their reluctance to see hard copies go, the vast faculty members feel that the preservation of electronic journals is important now, and will be even more important in the long term.

Online Publication

Publish or Perish

Although faculty have warmed up over time to using digital media, they've been much more resistant to changes in their own scholarly communications, defined as avenues in which scholars can share and publish their research. Tools such as blogs, social media and digital content repositories have been lauded for their potential to digitize communication and increase open access, but they remain underutilized. While the academic community has shown growing support for open access, faculty attitudes indicate that this is still a low priority when it comes to publishing their own works. Instead, they're typically focused on avenues of communication that will increase their own prestige and potential for tenure, which remain stuck in traditional modes.

The report shows that faculty place the highest value on their professional networks. When asked to prioritize the factors that influence their decisions on where to publish, faculty across disciplines have continued to rate high readership in their own fields as the most important. Other factors such as selectivity and permitting scholars to publish for free matter, but most faculty indicate that broad circulation among their peers is the deciding factor. Whether or not the journal promotes open access by making its articles freely available online is consistently ranked as the lowest priority. In fact, prioritization of free access has actually dropped since 2003.

From Ithaka SR Faculty Survey 2009

From the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2009, page 25.

Digital content repositories are another important tool for modernizing scholarly communications and increasing open access. The library community has shown great enthusiasm for developing institutional and community-driven repositories, but faculty have been slow to adopt them. Under 30% of faculty indicate that they've ever deposited material into a repository. However, over 50% report that they haven't deposited materials yet but plan to do so, for a cumulative 80% of faculty who are likely to use the repositories in the future. The authors point out that it's too soon to tell if this is indicative of a coming shift toward the use of repositories or simply good intentions.

Even fewer faculty members (under 20%) report using materials in repositories. This implies that usage may be low because demand is low. The authors haven't identified why, but suggest that it may be due to perceptions of poor quality or challenges with discovery or citability. Of the few documents that are sought after in repositories, traditionally published articles are seen as far more useful than pre-prints or working papers. These articles are crucial to faculty's career advancement and reputation, and also continue to dominate research practices.

From Ithaka SR Faculty Survey 2009

From the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2009, page 31.

The pattern of faculty preference for traditional modes of scholarly communication continued when the Ithaka researchers asked respondents to evaluate the services provided by scholarly societies. Publishing peer-reviewed journals and organizing conferences that offer professional networking opportunities emerged as the most important roles by far. Many societies have moved toward facilitating peer interactions online as an efficient, cost-effective and modern alternative to face-to-face conferences, but this activity came in a distant last for faculty interest.

This doesn't mean that faculty are using peer networks for electronic communications. The survey found that online word of mouth is the primary avenue from which faculty discover digital resources. Yet faculty members continue to value the interactions they have at scholarly symposia and conferences much more highly than online interactions via wikis, listservs or blogs. These patterns suggest that while faculty members do see some benefits to online interactions, they aren't ready to replace traditional modes of scholarly communication.

As mentioned above, this preference for traditional methods may be heavily influenced by the systems of tenure and promotion. Tenure committees value traditional publications, therefore those publications continue to dominate research dissemination practices. About one-third of respondents in the Ithaka survey reported feeling 'unnecessarily constrained' in their publishing choices by tenure and promotion practices.

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